Exactly two weeks before World Refugee Day in the morning of June 6th the Phoenix was surrounded by an empty horizon and a stupefying total of over two thousand people packed into five very small wooden boats fleeing... something. How did this happen? The MOAS team had begun the rescue by ferrying lifejackets to the first boat we’d been directed to when it soon became apparent there were actually four more, one already alarmingly low in the water. A child could have seen, or felt, that it was sinking. A second fast rescue boat was put into action, and rigid flotation devices to support people in the water were deployed in case the craft suddenly sank or capsized. All efforts were directed to quickly getting people off that particular boat, and lifejackets onto its 500 or so occupants.
After a couple of hundred people were taken onto the Phoenix the waterlogged boat bobbed a bit higher in the front where before it looked to be nodding off, falling asleep into the waves. German, Irish, and Italian warships and an Italian Coast Guard vessel showed up to assist the people in the other boats. It was quite gratifying to see these large battle-wagons tending to the delicate rescue of small wooden boatloads of such vulnerable people, all of whom were eventually brought to safety.
Again, how did this happen? For some background on the chaos in Libya, which has come to mean so much misery for many who leave there by small boat for Europe, check: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/the_mediterranean_crises_and_libyas_turmoil3050 . For an idea of what might be involved in fleeing to Europe from equally-ravaged Syria, see: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32057601. And for some insight into the low-profile horror of Eritrea, now cited by the United Nations as potentially constituting a crime against humanity, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/06/12/the-brutal-dictatorship-the-world-keeps-ignoring or http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/14/observer-view-on-eritrea-and-migration. What more can I add, other than that on June 6th we welcomed 372 people aboard the Phoenix, almost all from Eritrea, including three pregnant women and twenty-five children below the age of five. They weren’t hoping to get better jobs in Europe, or live on welfare handouts there. They just needed to survive and not be treated like slaves, to not live in terror or a war zone.
And now we learn of the border between Italy and France closing to this very human migration: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/mediterranean-migrants-refugees-sleep-rough-italian-riviera-after-being-refused-entry-into-france-1506149. What is the root cause of all this? Perhaps a clue can be found in a book I’m reading between rescues, care of the people onboard, and resupply back in port. In ”Moral Tribes” Joshua Greene makes a disconcertingly convincing case that “Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only in the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups.” There’s apparently plenty of good evidence for this, ranging from brain scans during moral problem-solving to thoughtful historical examples. Thankfully he believes that with some understanding and effort we can overcome our personal and group biases, and cooperate on a larger scale for the benefit of everybody concerned.
Which brings us back to 2015 and tens of millions of displaced people from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Syria, and other countries, looking to live decent lives, anywhere. Seeking asylum as they flee persecution, war, and poverty. Or in some cases, yes, just seeking to better their lot in life just as you or I undeniably would, if we found ourselves in their situation.
There’s certainly lots to think about, in quieter moments on the Phoenix and ashore. There are difficult questions with no simple answers. Some argue for example that providing extensive rescue at sea only encourages more people to attempt the passage, the so-called “pull factor”. In response it’s been pointed out that despite dramatically fewer Search and Rescue (SAR) resources available earlier this season compared to last year, even more people attempted the crossing. But that illogical retort completely ignores any possibility of a time-lag between changes in supply of a service, and attempts to use that service. More to the point I believe that any such “pull factor” isn’t relevant to the fundamental problem, which is that these people have to leave their home countries and risk so very much, just to breathe freely and give their children a chance. Intercepting and rescuing them at sea isn’t ideal, but it may have to do until the root causes are addressed and safer migration routes are created. I don’t believe it’s fundamentally about “smugglers”, “pull factor”, politics, or migration quotas. I think it’s about the imagination and trust required to see and act just a bit beyond the status quo of “us” and “them”.